Richard Cross, III: And the 2015 Marylander of the Year is…

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The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is typically the point where you contemplate the milestones that defined the previous year.

This is a question I pondered as I enjoyed some time off from work, aided in my deliberations by how some in the media chose to rank the people, personalities, and events of 2015.

It’s one of those enticing intellectual exercises, a subjective game in which everyone feels compelled to participate.

Time Magazine bestowed its prestigious “Person of the Year” honor upon German chancellor Angela Merkel. With all due respect to the chancellor, I probably would have chosen the “American political outsider”, represented best by Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

They seem to be remaking the face of American politics – especially on the GOP side of the presidential contest.  Brash, unconventional, and fearless, they personify a new paradigm in American politics. I’m curious to see how far this phenomenon unfolds before the political establishment strikes back – if it can.

The Baltimore Sun chose retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski its “Marylander of the Year.” In doing so, The Sun’s editors explained, almost sheepishly: “We have never conceived this honor as a lifetime achievement award, nor have we typically given it to politicians.”

Senator Mikulski has had an impactful and storied political career. With the possible exception of William Donald Schaefer, no other Maryland public servant has better defined the heart and soul of Maryland politics. She’s a legend and an historical figure of the highest order, and the months to come will appropriately bring her many opportunities for due recognition.

But when it comes to events that transpired in Maryland in 2015, I think the choice is obvious.

The 2015 Marylander of the Year is…Freddie Gray.

The Freddie Gray story cuts across so many different forces at work in our state and society. At the heart of it, it reminds us how interconnected we remain as a community.

Freddie Gray was seemingly destined to live out his life in quiet obscurity. But due to events, his legacy has emerged differently. He is less loose cannon and more loose flashlight, bringing a new measure of transparency to complacent institutions that have defied intense scrutiny for a long while.

His story has compelled us to revisit attitudes towards the police – not just in terms of policies and practices, but how differently they are perceived by disparate segments of the community.

It has also forced many police officers to reevaluate their own relationships with the public and political establishment they serve. This is very understandable. When you are a good guy, being wrongly perceived as a villain can get old very quickly.

Before the Freddie Gray incident, Baltimore had been spared the kind of violence we saw in Ferguson, Missouri and in other places. True, there were riots after Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, but it never quite defined us as a community.

But when the rioting came in April, it came quickly. Events that we had grown accustomed to watching on CNN suddenly unfolded in our own backyard, and the city’s political leaders seemed unprepared to deal with it.

In the end, the riots and their aftermath cost us a police commissioner and a mayor, and compelled all of us to reevaluate our expectations in our public servants. The status quo mentality that has typified Baltimore City politics for so long suddenly seemed inadequate.

In the aftermath of Gray’s death, the city’s criminal justice system drew new scrutiny. Shortly after the rioting, city prosecutors rushed to file charges against six police officers, and the city rapidly paid out a $6.4 million settlement to the Gray family. Some saw in these actions a desperate, reactive attempt to quell further civil unrest. The lack of a verdict in the first trial feeds this ongoing skepticism.

The Freddie Gray situation affected individuals as well as institutions.

I was at the Orioles game the Saturday night rioting broke out. As a lifelong Marylander, it was the only time I ever had active concerns as to my safety when leaving a sporting event in Downtown Baltimore.

Further, as a resident of the city, I was subject to the curfew – meaning that, for that week, I had fewer civil liberties than other Marylanders who happened to live elsewhere.

Freddie Gray will be remembered as a pivotal figure because his death exposed fissures in our society – fissures we all knew were there but were perhaps reluctant to confront.

He reminds us that, while we may be one community, we remain two Marylands: rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban. 

As Marylanders, his story defined our 2015. How we cope with his legacy in 2016 and ahead is the task, and the responsibility, that lies ahead – for all of us.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore, and blogs at http://rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His e-mail address: .

 

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